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Kremlin shakeups stir fears of a pullback on freedoms

With the resignation of his veteran chief of staff, President Vladimir Putin bade farewell to the old Kremlin elite that engineered his meteoric rise to power and played a pivotal role in setting his policy during the last four years.

Alexander Voloshin's departure, which followed the jailing of Russia's richest tycoon, stirred fears that Putin's fellow ex-KGB officers are laying the groundwork for a redistribution of property that was privatized after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Voloshin was seen as the main advocate for Russia's business barons. He had opposed an official probe against Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, which culminated Oct. 25 in the jailing of its billionaire head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the subsequent freeze of Yukos assets.

Voloshin resigned right after the tycoon's arrest. Putin's decision to release him of his duties was announced only Thursday.

The architect of Russia's privatization program, Anatoly Chubais, said Voloshin's dismissal was a "bad and extremely serious" signal of a possible government departure from fundamental democratic values and economic freedoms.

Russian media widely reported an unwritten pact between Putin and Russian tycoons, reached shortly after the March 2000 presidential election, in which the president promised not to revisit privatization on condition the business moguls stayed out of politics.

Khodorkovsky's funding of opposition parties in parliament was widely believed to be an important reason behind the probe against Yukos and his jailing on charges of fraud, tax evasion and forgery. Some of the charges concerned privatization deals of the early 1990s, spooking investors who feared that other big companies might be next in the line of fire.

Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces, one of two liberal parties Khodorkovsky funded, said on NTV television that Voloshin's departure signaled a possible "rejection of economic progress, curtailing of democratic freedoms and tightening police controls over the society."

The attack on Khodorkovsky was welcomed by many ordinary Russians who despise the tycoons for winning quick fortunes in dubious privatization auctions of the 1990s. Many analysts said the crackdown on Yukos could further strengthen Putin's popularity.

Putin has repeatedly said the Yukos probe did not herald a broad revision of privatized industries. Yet Cabinet officials _ including Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a Voloshin ally _ say it sets a bad precedent.

With Voloshin out, other business barons will obediently follow orders from ex-KGB officials in the Kremlin, predicted Sergei Kovalyov, a human rights activist jailed during Soviet times for dissidence.

"Business has been taught a clear lesson," Kovalyov told the Associated Press. "They showed them who is the boss."

The new appointments in the Kremlin indicate Putin doesn't want his ex-KGB lieutenants on top. He promoted Voloshin's deputy, Dmitry Medvedev, to succeed him and gave wider duties to another two of his deputies.

But Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, said the trio lacks Voloshin's political skills and would likely be sidelined by ex-KGB officers who have spread through the ranks of Russian officialdom "like a web."